Enough Childish Name Calling

by Sharon Ede

Supporters of the steady state may have been irked, if they had not been so bemused, by the content of a recent piece from the UK’s Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), which took issue with steady state economics.

The opening paragraph of the article by IEA’s Kristian Niemietz is:

Imagine Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Thomas Malthus, Karl Marx and Saddam Hussein were meeting somewhere in the afterlife, deciding to write a joint policy paper. Difficult to imagine? Not at all. The result would probably look a lot like Enough is Enough, the report which came out of the Steady State Economy Conference.

I am sure even Saddam would have been bemused at this randomly selected “who I’d have dinner with” list.

The article continues into familiar territory encountered by steady staters: there are no limits to growth; steady staters and their ilk are doomsday environmentalists trying to spoil everybody’s consumption party; seeking to debunk Malthus and Ehrlich because their predictions have not (yet) manifested – which, based on current trends that a lot of people are very, very worried about, is arguably a bit of premature congratulation.

If Niemietz thinks that Ehrlich missed the mark about ‘prophesying decades of mass starvation in the Third World’, I suggest he familiarises himself with the Millennium Development Goals, which include a target to halve the number of people suffering from hunger between 1990 and 2015. Just because you are not starving, Mr Niemietz, does not mean many others are not. According to the UN Food & Agriculture Organization, one in six people in the world are suffering. That’s over a billion people.

Niemietz also creates a straw man of epic proportions when he states that “proponents of Steady State Economics think of people as a swarm of locusts: left to themselves, they will blindly devour their own livestock. But this interpretation is misleading. Locusts cannot generate scarcity signals. We can: they’re called market prices.”

Locusts do create scarcity signals – collapse of their number when the food source runs out. But that’s another story. In the meantime, will somebody contact the Mayans, the Romans and the Easter Islanders and tell them there is nothing to worry about.

A few tips for Mr Niemietz:

1. Limits to nature and to growth are a fact. There is only so much planet. Ask an astronaut.

2. Market prices signal a resource’s availability in the marketplace – not in the biosphere. This is why, where I live, a liter of petrol is cheaper than a liter of Coca Cola.

3. If perpetual consumption is the path to happiness, why do many western nations have such high levels of stress, personal debt, depression/mental illness? Is there a connection between the focus on maximizing consumption via the identity of the individual at the expense of community life and social connection? No chance we are out of balance in this one, then?

The author also cites a nonsensical metaphor courtesy of Bjørn Lomborg – the logic of resource depletion is akin to somebody who looks into a fridge and concludes there is only food for three days in it, and after that, the owner will starve.

An accurate metaphor would be that we are pulling apart our house to burn on the fire to keep warm; we are liquidating our capital, the natural systems that sustain us. Ask any conservation biologist and they will tell you that this is a dumb approach to asset management.

In an article peppered with inaccuracies and faulty logic, the author makes a claim that is way off target – an accusation that those advocating a steady state economy are misanthropists.  On the contrary, we want to see good lives for all, now and into the future, secured through sound management of our ecological assets, and a quality of life that includes meeting material needs – but recognizing material needs as only one aspect of the totality of being human.

Although it’s pleasing to see that these ideas are starting to pop up as debates in this kind of forum, because it means that the growth monster is being perturbed, critics should try adding some basic physics, biology and a bit of history into their all-economics diet. Think of it as a bit of fiber!

Sharon Ede is a collaborating author of Post Growth and the curator of the Cruxcatalyst blog.

Enough Is Enough

by Brian Czech

I have a running dialogue with my steady state friends and colleagues. The subject is best described with the metaphor of a horse and cart. I say, if we want to succeed in replacing the outdated goal of economic growth with a steady state economy, we have to put the horse before the cart. The horse is the public opinion and political will needed for this change. Without this horse, I say, we have little hope of pulling a cart of steady state policies into the economic policy arena.

Many of my friends and colleagues, however, say otherwise. They say I have it backwards. Citizens won’t be ready, they say, to support steady state policies unless it is clear in advance just what those policies are.

Sometimes I think my friends and colleagues are right. Certainly one of the most common questions I get, after pontificating on the perils of growth and the need for steady state economics, is “Yes, but how do we do it?” When I describe the horse and cart, emphasizing the horse, some of the audience don’t buy it. They want to know more about the cart before offering their horsepower.

I suppose we are all onto something. The horse and the cart may have to materialize more or less in tandem. Otherwise the horse may say “that’s enough of this” and walk away, as the grass may seem greener in more conventional “sustainability” pastures. On the other hand, even the sturdiest cart of steady state policies would mire down and rust without the horse of public opinion and political will to lead it into action.

So it was mentally agonizing for me to miss the first ever Steady State Economy Conference, especially with CASSE as co-organizer with our partner, Economic Justice for All. I went instead to a different conference (Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences) in Portland, Oregon, where many new recruits to the steady state cause were assembled. Meanwhile, the steady state conferees in Leeds, UK were busy constructing and filling a cart full of steady state policies. Theirs was an exciting undertaking. My belated contribution is to wholeheartedly endorse the report of their conference!

Actually the report, aptly titled Enough is Enough, provides more than just a cart of public policies for achieving a steady state economy. Part One is mostly about the horse, describing why economic growth has become uneconomic — dangerously so — and describing the alternative: economic degrowth toward a steady state economy. However, the bulk of Enough is Enough is found in Part Two, which is all about the cart of policies. This constitutes the single most complete collection of steady state policy initiatives, tools, and reforms in the literature. That alone makes the report worth its weight in steady state gold. As if that were not enough, Part Three puts it all together into a plan to get the horse and cart moving together to begin the economic transition.

Enough is Enough is an extremely interesting and unique document. It is academic and book-like in length and style, and as well-documented as a Jared Diamond bestseller. Yet it also puts the reader into the venue of a wonderfully orchestrated, interactive, and productive conference. One can almost hear the plenary talks from the podium in Part One, walk the halls to the diverse workshop sessions in Part Two, and reconvene with the conferees in Part Three.

Most conference proceedings, book-like or not, go quickly onto a dusty shelf. I doubt this is the fate of Enough is Enough. For one thing, the university instructor may easily construct a summary slideshow from the plethora of colorful figures, tables, and graphs. Some of the graphics will be familiar to students and practitioners of ecological economics; others were developed at the conference or in the aftermath of this creative burst of energy. Beyond its academic uses, Enough is Enough has the potential to become a manifesto in the hands of policy reformers working on issues of environmental protection, economic sustainability, and social justice.

But most importantly, in my opinion, is that steady statesmen and ambassadors, present and future, won’t miss a beat when confronted with the challenging question of “Yes, but how do we do it?” With a sturdy cart of policies hitched to a horse of public opinion that grows stronger by the day, we are ready to set out towards the steady state economy.

Click here to download a free copy of the full report (130 pages).

Click here to download a summary (10 pages).